Book Review: Spark, by Rachael Craw

cv_sparkEvangeline Everton, aka Evie, isn’t having a great year. Her mum has passed away, and with no father on the scene she has been shipped off to live with her aunt Miriam, her mum’s twin sister, in a different city. As if that isn’t enough, Evie seems to be going through an unusually violent growth spurt which includes strange fizzing pins and needles in her spine, insomnia, and a loss of appetite. And New Hampshire, where she now lives, may be home to one of her best friends, Kitty, but it is also home to Kitty’s magnetic brother Jamie, with whom Evie has a Past.

But there is more to Miriam than it seems, and it’s not long before Evie discovers that Miriam’s secret is about to become her own. Evie, like Miriam, has altered DNA, the result of tampering by a government agency, Affinity, a couple of generations ago. The tampering, in the form of a synthetic gene known as Optimal, was originally intended to create a group of super-soldiers, but didn’t go quite to plan. As a result, there are now three types of DNA mutations. The first, Sparks, are carriers – they spark the abilities of others. The second, Strays, are killers, who attach to a Spark and won’t stop until that spark is dead. The third are Shields, defenders, designed to protect their Spark from the Stray. A Spark will only spark once. A Stray and Shield will remain attached to their Spark until either the Spark or Stray is dead. And then it begins again.

Evie’s first Spark is her best friend, Kitty. But Shields almost never manage to save their first Spark. And the presence of Jamie only adds to Evie’s distress and confusion. There’s something different about Evie though: her abilities seem to be stronger and improving faster than normal – but will it be enough?

I found it interesting that Craw, a New Zealand author, decided to set her debut novel in the USA, when really the location doesn’t seem to be all that important. I wonder whether this was to appeal to a potentially wider audience, or whether the next two books in this intended trilogy will make the choice of location more apparent. It certainly didn’t detract from the book, but had I not known this was a New Zealand writer, I would never have suspected it from the writing.

Evie is a great protagonist – like the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen she is a strong female character, but with flaws and insecurities that make her human and relatable. The book was compelling and I read it quickly, and the twists and turns made sense without being predictable.

The details about Affinity and Optimal were a bit long and overly complex, and there were way too many acronyms, but the plot wasn’t hard to follow even with only a skim read of Miriam’s explanations. It will be interesting to see how Craw handles this in the second and third books – allowing enough explanation for readers who haven’t read the first book without relitigating everything for those who have.

The blend of sci-fi “lite”, romance, and supernatural themes is well tested on the YA audience, and this new series brings a fresh perspective to the genre and will not disappoint. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson

by Rachael Craw
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781922179623


Book Review: Half Bad, by Sally Green

Now available in all bookstores. 

For the Council, the world is definitely cv_half_badblack and white. White witches are good, lawful and to be protected. Black witches are bad, wild and to be hunted down and brought to justice. Fains, non-witch humans, are essentially irrelevant, although there are many witches who are half fain, half white witch. And then there’s Nathan.

Born of a black witch father and a white witch mother, Nathan is a half-code and the only one of his kind. According to the Council, he is a dangerous anomaly and must be closely monitored to see which of his halves will win out. As he approaches his seventeenth birthday, when he will come of age and discover his “gift”, the Council interferes more and more in his life, until he winds up literally caged, which is where we meet him in the opening chapter of the book.

It soon becomes clear, however, that what the Council wants more than anything is to use Nathan as bait to catch his father, Marcus, a notorious and wanted black witch. However, while the Council might see the world in black and white, it is pretty clear that the self-proclaimed “good” white witches are often as bad as their “bad” black witch foes, and the distinction between killing for “good” and killing for “evil” is very tenuous.

Initially it seemed like this book was going to be an allegory about race in the vein of Mallory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. White versus black, discrimination and persecution based on colour are all quite obvious themes in Half Bad, but as the story developed I got less of a sense that “race” was what it was all about. Instead I got the sense that this was more a comment on authority and the dangers of self-proclaimed righteousness – a sort of teenage-fantasy version of Orwell’s 1984.

Being based around witches, Harry Potter comparisons are likely inevitable, but Nathan’s world is certainly no Hogwarts. Darker, and with more adult themes, Half Bad is more likely to appeal to Hunger Games fans.

I enjoyed the structure of the book, which played with time and point of view to good effect. It opens in the little-used second person narrative, which works well to both unsettle and drawn in the reader, but switches back to the more familiar first person a couple of chapters in.

Half Bad is the first of a series and while it is not startlingly new or original it is well-written with interesting, well-developed characters and thought-provoking story line. Fans of young adult fantasy will certainly find a worthy new writer in Sally Green.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Half Bad
by Sally Green
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN 9780141350868